Saturday, December 8, 2012

Cosmopolis and two kinds of surprise

I recently read Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis. I pretty much hated it, and it's easy to identify why: there are no rules structuring the narrative. In Cosmopolis, everything happens with the sullen randomness of the third act of a JJ Abrams twist-fest. (This happened, and then this other thing happened, and you won't believe what happened next!)

I tried to stay on board. I tried to focus on DeLillo's sentences, which are always rewarding, and to ignore the stupidity of the narrative. But when the main character, in his limousine in the year 2000, and for no real reason, used his wrist-watch to hack into his trophy wife's Swiss bank account, I gave up. There is no way I was not going to hate this book.

Reading such an extreme example of rule-free fiction helped give some structure to some previously inchoate attitudes, so in that sense I'm glad I read it. The lesson lesson I took away from Cosmopolis:

Being surprised by a story is one of the main pleasures of fiction. "Predictable" is, in the context of fiction, everywhere pejorative. But there are different kinds of surprises. One kind of surprise invites a reaction like "that is what would happen-- why didn't I see that coming?" Another kind of surprise invites a reaction like "wow. I had no idea that could happen." I love the first kind of surprise, and I hate the second. There is no pleasure, for me, in discovering that the author has been withholding important rules, characters, or information from me. There is nothing better known rules, characters, and information snapping together in an unexpected way.

(A bit of introspection. The distinction between these two kinds of surprises is, effectively, the criterion I use for distinguishing science fiction from fantasy. I say I like science fiction, because it is characteristic of the kind of science fiction I like that it takes the world as given and changes no more than a few of the familiar rules. I say I don't like fantasy because it is characteristic of the fantasy I don't like that any rules are open to emendation at any time.

This obviously isn't going to work as a genuine criterion of distinction. Far-future science fiction, which I can't tolerate, has effectively no rules. And when fantasy authors talk about world-building, one of the things they're talking about is setting up a set of rules. But having realized that this is how I divide the genres in my own mind, I should be able to talk more temperately about fantasy.)

No comments:

Post a Comment